With a locomotive and seven carriages, Rohan Vos launched his rail business on 29 April 1989. That was the day that he set off for the Eastern Transvaal with four paying passengers, friends and press. Thankfully against all the odds faced by any train operator or airline and narrowly avoiding bankruptcy, he turned this venture into arguably the most luxurious travel experience in the world.
For Rohan Vos, his passion for trains began with a combination of influences and events that led to the purchase of the first coach, the start of what would become Rovos Rail. A Wilbur Smith heroine with her own private railway coach, a man called Phil Acutt with a passion for trains and the presence of the Witbank Steam Railway in the coal-mining town where Rohan Vos ran his successful auto spares business, all played a part. His wife Anthea says that “Rohan has always been obsessed with things mechanical,”
All the signs were there in 1985, when Rohan and Anthea took up a last-minute invitation on a Magaliesberg train trip for business suppliers. Anthea found herself alone while; Rohan spent most of the time in the engine with the driver; that was also the day when they experienced some of the hiccups of running a railway business – the train broke down and they were bussed back to town!
As if that was not clear enough, that same year, influenced by his friend Phil Acutt’s love of trains and the work done by the Railway Preservation Society in Witbank, Rohan attended an auction to buy a coach or two – the intention was to restore four carriages and hitch them to a South African Railways train as a family caravan. Steam-train enthusiast, Geoff Pethick, was present at the auction and assisted him. Geoff says that “It was the 26th of September – a cold day with rain in the air – and I’d hoped Rohan wasn’t another penniless lunatic with grand ideas”. “As we chatted, I quickly realised that here was a man of vision.”
Several coaches were purchased and taken to the Society’s yards in Witbank to be rebuilt. One of them, Private Saloon 15063, is still in service and another, an engineer’s caboose, stood at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront for many years where it served as the marketing and reservations office.
The complications of working with the South African Transport Services administration soon convinced Rohan that he needed to be self-sufficient where possible. As a result, he purchased a 1938 Class 19D locomotive from Lowenthal’s Scrap Metal in Johannesburg. It was rebuilt by Rovos Rail and named BIANCA after one of his daughters.
Negotiations began with Sam Taute of SAR and Rohan was granted permission to run his train in December 1986 – the idea of running a vintage train as a business venture was born. The tariff quoted by the authorities for hauling the train was, however, extremely high; he objected to this charge and the Railways returned a well thought-out curve ball by giving Rohan the right to sell tickets.
“I remember the occasion very clearly: on a wintry evening I was subsiding into a hot bath with my Red Heart Rum and coke close at hand.
There’d been a power cut, so musing by candlelight about the consequences of turning a hobby into a business; I let my imagination float around in delusions of grandeur. But I knew that launching into the arena of tourism and trains, of which I had no experience, held many dangers. It was an uncharted course and I had little idea where to start, let alone where to aim. However, a unique challenge was right up my street and the decision was made to go ahead. This was – unknown to me at the time – a life-changing moment and sadly, during the next few years or so, I had many agonising thoughts regretting the move. I could never have imagined how all-consuming the business was to become both financially and emotionally.
All the engines acquired for Rovos Rail have been named after the Vos children – Brenda, Bianca, Tiffany and Shaun – and nothing could be more appropriate as the family’s history and memories are so tightly interwoven with the Rovos Rail story of acquisition and expansion. On the 10th anniversary of Rovos Rail, the magnificently restored and rebuilt locomotive – 25NC 3484, which had been converted from coal-firing to oil – was christened MARJORIE by Rohan’s mother, Mrs Marjorie Vos.
It is not just family who make life at Rovos Rail delightful, loyal employees like Joy Strydom who joined Rovos Rail as its first employee in May 1988 and is still with the company.
There’s been a special magic about Rovos Rail. “Many of us in those early years didn’t believe that Rohan would ever achieve what he’d set out to do,” says Pethick. “It’s wonderful to see that, despite ups and downs, Rovos Rail is doing so well and has helped preserve much of our railway history.”